By ANITA HOFSCHNEIDER
HONOLULU — They’re called lobbyist disclosure forms, but the truth in Hawaii is the records don’t disclose much.
Hardly any individual lobbyists reported spending anything to schmooze Hawaii lawmakers early in the recent legislative session, making it all but impossible for state residents to tell from the filings how special interest groups are affecting state legislators.
Lobbyists haven’t stopped wining and dining elected officials in the Aloha State, but a combination of outdated state laws, wide loopholes and lax oversight has created an environment where disclosure reports say little about how much is money spent, who is spending it and which lawmakers are being courted most often.
An Associated Press analysis found that more than 90 percent of nearly 200 registered individual lobbyists reported zero expenses for the first two months of the 2013 legislative session, the latest period for which comprehensive records are available. Filings from about 200 lobbying organizations showed a cumulative spending of about $1 million over the same period, but the vast majority of reports do not indicate specifics about the expenses.
“I presume lobbyists are following the law,” said state Sen. Les Ihara. “It’s just that the law is vague, and there are loopholes.”
Ihara, who has urged an overhaul of reporting requirements for years, added, “The law is meant to provide disclosure, and it’s not being effective.”
Lobbyists say, however, that the blank filings don’t reflect a problem; they’re just not spending anything worth reporting.
State law requires lobbyists to list expenditures worth more than $25 toward one person in one day or $150 to one person over a reporting period. Two reporting periods cover January through April, while a third period covers the last days of session in May and the rest of the year.
In addition to the law, the ethics commission instructs lobbyists not to list expenses if they get reimbursed by their companies and cautions lawmakers against accepting gifts worth more than $25.
“It’s very difficult to take anyone out to dinner in Hawaii if you’re limited to $24.99,” said Gary Slovin, a lobbyist who reported nothing on his individual report for January and February. Slovin represented 21 companies including the American Beverage Association, McDonald’s, Microsoft Corp. and Altria Client Services Inc.
Max Sword is one of the few lobbyists who reported spending any money during the first half of the session on his individual report, listing more than $1,300 spent on meals.
As a lobbyist for the Outrigger Enterprise Group, Sword says he takes lawmakers out for lunch almost every day during session to talk to them about business and tourism, while staying under the $25 threshold.
“It’s very valuable,” he said. “The legislators deal with about 2,000 bills about 100 different issues.”
Even when the reports appear to be filled out properly, they leave unanswered questions.
The Hawaii Chamber of Commerce recently reported spending more than $1,400 on meals, nearly $400 on gifts and more than $700 on “other” expenses. But the statement doesn’t say which lawmakers benefited from the spending, and the organization didn’t respond to a request for more details.
Some state lawmakers say they have tried to make political spending more transparent. But the lobbyist law hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years, and legislators ignored bills during this year’s session to tighten lobbyist reporting requirements.
Neither Rep. Karl Rhoads nor Sen. Clayton Hee, chairmen of their chambers’ respective Judiciary committees, held hearings this year for a proposal to require more information from lobbyists. Rhoads said lawmakers had more pressing business, while Hee said the proposal needed more research.
Amid the inaction, watchdog groups say Hawaii needs to improve.
The State Integrity Investigation, an analysis of state government transparency nationwide, gave Hawaii’s lobbying disclosure law a D-minus grade last year. The report by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International said Hawaii’s lobbyist filings were missing information and that rules weren’t properly enforced.
Carmille Lim, director of Common Cause Hawaii, an advocacy group focused on government transparency, said Hawaii’s lobbying law needs to be revamped to demand more information.
“The reporting is vague and doesn’t really disclose what is really going on,” Lim said.
Les Kondo, director of the state ethics commission, said the commission follows up on complaints or glaring problems, but lobbying disclosures aren’t regularly audited because the office has limited resources.
And if the law is broken, there’s not much the commission can do. Violators are subject to an administrative fine, but because of the statute’s wording, lobbyists and organizations who claim ignorance of the rule can avoid penalties. Kondo fought to have the wording changed this year but lawmakers didn’t push the bill through.
Sometimes, reports are filed weeks or months late.
In March, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association and the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation invited legislators to an event called “A Tour and a Taste of Ag” to tell them about the benefits of genetically modified agriculture. The event, which featured speakers from out of state, lunch and shuttles to and from the state Capitol, occurred just a week before voting on proposal to label genetically modified food. The highly controversial bill was defeated in session.
The ethics commission said neither organization has yet submitted a disclosure form detailing how much the event cost and whether any lawmakers attended, although the deadline passed in May.
The Crop Improvement Association told The Associated Press the event was educational and not a lobbying event. The organization said the cost of lunch was $15 per person and that only two lawmakers attended.
The Farm Bureau Federation did not return messages from the AP seeking comment.
Rhoads said he is open to discussing the lobbying law next session, but he says a lot of information is already available to the public if they choose to look.
“It’s not that hard to connect the dots,” he said.
However, disclosures reports from organizations are uploaded online as PDFs, which can be difficult to search. And individual lobbyist reports for the first half of this year’s session are currently only available in hard copy.
Kondo said the office is now asking lobbyists to submit disclosures as PDFs online but the office doesn’t have enough funding to do more than that. He thinks lobbyist law should be reviewed to make sure it’s accomplishing its intent.
“How? When? Who does it? I don’t know,” he said.
In the meantime, the office collects dozens of nearly blank forms each reporting period and files them away.
Anita Hofschneider can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ahofschneider